Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Sing to Me

It is strange to think of karaoke as an invention. The practice predates its facilitating devices, and the concept transcends its practice: Karaoke is the hobby of being a star; it is an adjuvant for the truest you an audience could handle.

Karaoke does have a parent. In the late 1960s, Daisuke Inoue was working as a club keyboardist, accompanying drinkers who wanted to belt out a song. “Out of the 108 club musicians in Kobe, I was the worst,” he told Time. One client, the head of a steel company, asked Inoue to join him at a hot springs resort where he’d hoped to entertain business associates. Inoue declined, but instead recorded a backing tape tailored to the client’s erratic singing style. It was a success. Intuiting a demand, Inoue built a jukebox-like device fitted with a car stereo and a microphone, and leased an initial batch to bars across the city in 1971. “I’m not an inventor,” he said in an interview. “I simply put things that already exist together, which is completely different.” He never patented the device (in 1983, a Filipino inventor named Roberto del Rosario acquired the patent for his own sing-along system) though years later he patented a solution to ward cockroaches and rats away from the wiring.

In 1999, Time named Inoue one of the “most influential Asians” of the last century; in 2004, he received the Ig Nobel prize, a semiserious Nobel-parody honor by true laureates at Harvard University. At the ceremony, Inoue ended his acceptance speech with a few bars of the Coke jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and four laureates serenaded him with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in the style of Andy Williams. “I was nominated [as] the inventor of karaoke, which teaches people to bear the awful singing of ordinary citizens, and enjoy it anyway,” Inoue wrote in an essay. “That is ‘genuine peace,’ they told me.”

“While karaoke might have originated in Japan, it has certainly become global,” write Xun Zhou and Francesca Tarocco in Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon. “Each country has appropriated karaoke into its own existing culture.” My focus is limited to just a slice of North America, where karaoke has gone from a waggish punchline — an item on the list of Things We All Hate, according to late-night hosts and birthday cards — to an “ironic” pastime, to just a thing people like to do, in any number of forms. You can rent a box, or perform for a crowded bar; you can do hip-hop karaoke, metal karaoke, porno karaoke, or, in Portland, “puppet karaoke.” For the ethnography Karaoke Idols: Popular Music and the Performance of Identity, Dr. Kevin Brown spent two years in the late aughts frequenting a karaoke bar near Denver called Capone’s: “a place where the white-collar collides with the blue-collar, the straight mingle with the gay, and people of all colors drink their beer and whiskey side by side.” In university, a friend of mine took a volunteer slot hosting karaoke for inpatients at a mental health facility downtown. Years later I visited a friend at the same center on what happened to be karaoke night; we sang “It’s My Party.”

When I was growing up in Toronto, karaoke was reviled for reasons that now seem crass: There is nothing more nobodyish than pretending you’re somebody. Canada is an emphatically modest country, and the ’90s were a less extroverted age: Public attitudes were more condemnatory of those who showed themselves without seeming to have earned the right. The ’90s were less empathetic, too, and karaoke lays bare the need to be seen, and accepted; such needs are universal, and repulsive. We live now, you could say, in a karaoke age, in which you’re encouraged to show yourself, through a range of creative presets. Participating online implies that you’re worthy of being perceived, that some spark of you deserves to exist in public. Instagram is as public as a painting.

Karaoke is a social medium, a vector for a unit of your sensibility, just as mediated as any other, although it demands different materials. Twitter calls for wit, Instagram for aesthetic, but karaoke is supposed to present your nudest self.

by Alexandra Molotkow, Real Life |  Read more:
Image: Farah Al-Qasimi